A video uploaded on the YouTube channel of spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living foundation in May this year claimed that the expert committee of the National Green Tribunal falsely accused them of damaging Yamuna floodplains during the World Culture Festival. The festival was held on the banks of the Yamuna in Delhi from March 11-13 last year and was attended by millions of followers.
Environmentalists took the matter to the green panel, claiming that the preparations for the event had caused irreversible damage to the Yamuna flood plains and the area’s ecosystem. Even though the NGT held that damage was caused, it allowed the festival to go on and imposed a fine and asked the organisers to fix the damage.
The video, titled ‘The truth behind the false allegations by the NGT expert committee against Art of Living’, did not have any credit and carried a disclaimer that the views expressed in the video were of the author and not necessarily of AOL. The video questioned both the preliminary and final reports of the NGT committee and claimed that it was full of unscientific reasonings. The permission given by the Delhi Development Authority to hold the event was called into question in the tribunal.
These are the ten things the video said:
1. It said the committee report mentioned AoL required permission from the NGT to hold the event on the Yamuna floodplains, but the 25-hectare site belonged to the DDA, which gave them the permission to hold the festival. The video said the permission letter didn’t mention anywhere that AoL needed to secure NGT nod. It argued that since NGT was a tribunal, it heard matters but doesn’t give out permissions like government agencies do.
2. The video mentioned that AoL took the requisite permission from the Environment Ministry, Forests and Climate Change department, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, the Uttar Pradesh Irrigation Committee, Delhi Disaster Management Authority, Irrigation and Flood Control Department of Delhi and others.
3. The video pointed out that the reports alleged the presence of wetlands on the site. It said the 2011 report by ISRO, titled “National Wetland Atlas”, listed 399 wetlands in Delhi, but none on the event site. It also said the report classified the small water bodies outside the event site as man-made.
Wetlands are ecologically protected zones and fall under the purview of NGT and under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, 1971, where any kind of gathering is strictly prohibited. The video also said floodplains, where public and religious functions can be held, don’t require permission, however, this claim was not backed by any statute. It gave examples like the Kumbh Mela and Maramon Convention.
4. According to the video, the site was part of Kilokari village of Delhi and was being used for farming. It said that AoL paid compensation to the farmers to “get the farmland free from farming activities” and take the site for the event, but a few farmers refused. It said those farmers filed a petition in the Delhi High Court, which later said the event was not supposed to take place on those farms. This argument is used in the video to claim that the event site was not a wetland but agricultural land.
5. The video said the committee’s reports mentioned that the area was completely flattened and it was left devoid of all vegetation. It then reiterates that since it was a farmland, there was no vegetation except for vegetables. It also said the committee alleged the event on the 25 ha farmland damaged the entire floodplain of 9300 ha.
6. It said that three members of the expert committee Prof Brij Gopal, Prof CR Babu and Prof AK Gosain wrote a report titled “Restoration and Conservation of River Yamuna” and submitted it to the NGT in 2013. The video says the report held flowing water, riverbed, floodplain forest and grasslands in the region were locally extinct. The report said the 22 km urban stretch had zero dissolved oxygen content and that floodplain biodiversity was lost.
7. It said the same three people were part of the five-member NGT committee that in its restoration order to AoL said all vegetation, flora and fauna, including fish and birds, have to be restored. It also refuted the report’s assessment that AoL had levelled or compacted the floodplain. It said, since the soil in the floodplains was dense sand and this soil type is compacted negligibly by even enormous amounts of pressure, the panel’s claims were absurd.
8. The video then goes on to mention that the expert committee showed bias while referring to a post-monsoon picture of September 2015 to compare the pre-monsoon condition in March 2016. It said the panel could’ve looked at satellite image of past years during the same months.
9. It said the final report of the committee said there were constraints to ecological restoration of the AoL site as it was not possible to “assess the ecological status of the riparian ecosystem before the event and to determine the state of the ecosystem to which the restoration has to be carried out”. It showed objection to the switch of the committee from restoration to rehabilitation and construction of a biodiversity park as per the directions in the final report.
10. At the end of the video, the author shows a budget for the rehabilitation project, which they claim to be part of the final report that includes salaries and consultancies for scientists and experts who would monitor and supervise construction over a 10 year period at the cost of around Rs 7 crore. It said the report proposed the chairman of the principal committee and the three experts to undertake the responsibility, alleging corruption.